The 1924 silent classic, He Who Gets Slapped, did not air on TCM as part of its Lon Chaney marathon that I recorded on October 14, 2020. Instead, it aired as part of its circus movie marathon exactly a month later. Wherever you’re able to see it, I highly encourage that you do so. For my favorite non-hunchback/phantom Chaney film, it’s between this one and The Unknown (1927.)
I’m partial to this one because its director, Victor Sjostrom, made The Phantom Carriage three years earlier and that may be my favorite silent film, period. He Who Gets Slapped is not as surreal, but does share some unique visual traits with it. When MGM thought cinematographer Milton Moore was incompetent, Sjostrom had to tell them he was following his instruction.
More noticeable to me was the repeated usage of a clown spinning a big ball on his finger. During the opening scene, this image morphs into a man spinning a globe and the story is set in motion. The clown and ball return at the beginning of several other scenes without a similar direct relation to what happens in the next scene.
The one exception is a transition from the scenes that establish the plot and the scenes that evolve from that. The spinning ball again becomes a globe, but then clowns appear and sit all around it, and then the globe becomes a circus ring. I’m sure all these scenes mean something, but I haven’t determined what I believe them to mean… yet. I will watch it again someday.
Chaney again plays the short side of a love triangle… twice in one film. First, he’s Paul Beaumont, a scientist struggling with his theories about the origin of life, betrayed by a benefactor, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), who not only steals his discovery, but also his wife, Marie (Ruth King.) When they taunt him with “Fool! Clown!” he literally becomes…
…HE, a clown that becomes a huge draw for the circus because he gets slapped repeatedly during his act. (“Nothing makes people laugh so hard!”) Here, his love with Consuelo (Norma Shearer) is unrequited because she’s herself in a love triangle with… get ready… the Baron, who has dumped Marie, and Bezano (John Gilbert), the dashing young horseback rider.
Pulling strings to complicate the situation for everyone is Consuelo’s greedy father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall), who pushes the Baron to marry Consuelo so that he can prosper from the wealth he assumes the Baron will bring the family. When HE finally confesses to Consuela how he feels, it starts an extended climax that ends in tragedy for nearly everyone involved.
I hate to spoil it, but I was truly surprised at the extent to which He Who Gets Slapped is willing to go. Of course, for 1924, it’s not gory, but it is intense… and heartbreaking. If you believe people get what they deserve, it’s never explained why Paul/HE lives such a punishing life. It may just be his destiny. Others, though, earn their fates. That satisfaction balances the tragedy.
Written by Carey Wilson and Victor Sjostrom
From the play by Leonid Andreyev
Directed by Victor Sjostrom
Starring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Ruth King, Marc McDermott, Ford Sterling, Tully Marshall
RT 95 min.
Released Dec. 22, 1924
Recorded on Nov. 14, 2020 (TCM)
Rating 8 Phantoms (out of 10)
This review is part of the annual Countdown to Halloween. I invite you to join me as I attempt to gain some space on my DVR. Every day, I'll be watching something from the bottom of the list, thereby reducing the percentage that's full... so I can record more!
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